Steven Amsterdam, The Easy Way Out

downloadThis was one of those uncomfortable books that you just have to keep reading. I kept feeling as though I couldn’t read sitting still, as though I needed to somehow protest the issues being raised by the protagonists – there was too much at stake to simply be passive, a reader on the outside of some grand narrative. But, read it I did, and without launching a rebellion and throughout, my heart ached a soft, quiet song at the thought of what was endured in this painful telling.

Steven Amsterdam is a palliative care nurse. In his acknowledgements, he explains, briefly, the impetus for writing this novel:

Over the years that I have worked as a palliative care nurse, despairing patients or fearful carers have occasionally asked me if something might be done to speed things up. My first answer is short and legal, some softened variant of No. Then I reorient the discussion to pain managements and specific burdens to see if there are any other measures that my excellent organisation can offer them to ease their distress. WE can almost always improve a situation. When we can’t, and when the topic comes up again, part of me wishes I could say, Sure, just let me get the drugs fro you. But another part of me is glad that task is not within my job description.

This is the basis of The Easy Way Out‘s plot; Evan, a nurse involved in a new, hospital run program to help people in the final stages of a terminal illness to die, comes to question his role, the extent of his ability to help people, and the boundaries of his own humanity. It brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘profound’. There is no doubt that Evan’s journey is interesting and the people he assists, who readers briefly encounter as they make their last voyage into death, are equally fascinating. However, what I found truly remarkable about this novel, was Evan himself.

Evan is quite possibly one of the most complex protagonists I have ever encountered. He acknowledges that he is totally committed to his job and indeed, he quite enjoys his role on the outside of various patients’ experiences of dying. He feels empowered by his ability to assist these people. Yet, this is not what makes Evan interesting. Rather, the true depths of his complexity lie in his relationship with his powerhouse mother, the unresolved death of his father and his inability to truly connect to others. Ironically, it is the bond between him and his mother, Viv, that ultimately lead him to find himself and to accept that he is not God.

There is much more to write about this novel but it is hard to discuss without spoiling the plot and revealing too much. Instead, you should just read the book and then take a long hard look at your own humanity and ask the question: Would you help someone end their life?

You can hear Amsterdam and other amazing authors speak at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival which takes place on August 27-28th at Waverley Library, Bondi Junction. Amsterdam will be on a panel entitled ‘We Need to Talk About Dying: Facing the Inevitable’ with author Leah Kaminsky and Rabbi David Freedman.

Clouds of Glory, Millie Phillips

contentMy children’s school has a wing endowed in the name of Lynette Phillips. I had never questioned the legacy of this Lynette. Regularly I walked by this wing and noted the sign and thought fleetingly what a lovely way this was to commemorate someone. The school I attended also featured a tribute to Lynette, but that too I never questioned.

It was only when someone handed me this book that I realised that the Lynette Phillips whose name graces my children’s school was actually the daughter of Millie Phillips, one of the most generous philanthropists that the Sydney Jewish community has ever known.

There are two ways to approach a review of this book – from a literary perspective and from a narrative perspective. Rather than critique the literary qualities of Millie’s book, I’m going to focus on the narrative because I was so taken by the story that it seems worth discussing.

After reading this book it is impossible to deny that Millie Phillips is a strong, committed and driven woman. Her story is fraught with incredible trials and tribulations, and with abuse and trauma. On the one hand, Millie is a business woman, building an empire, but behind closed doors she seems to be powerless to battle her abusive husband and dysfunctional family. How she reconciled these two realms is hard to fathom. But clearly she did because in one sense she triumphed – she survived.

What didn’t survive was Millie’s relationship with her children and in fact the book itself is a kind of love story, a testimony to the depth of her connection with one of those children, Lynette, who joined a cult and self-immolated at the age of 24. Parts of this memoir read like an elegy to Lynette and the enormous loss that Millie suffered when she died.

There is so much complexity in this memoir that it is difficult to explain – it is hard not to be in awe of all that Millie accomplished and the grandiosity of her vision about everything she attempted – nursing homes, mines, life itself. At the same time, it is impossible not to feel her sorrow.

What has stayed with me is that Millie Phillips is a woman from whom one could learn a great deal, a woman I would quite like to meet but never cross.

For those of you planning to read this memoir, one word of warning: to me it seemed that this book was written by two different people. The first part is quite simply magnificent and captivated me entirely, drawing me in to the narrative and the emotion of the telling. It is eloquent and brilliant. The second part lacks this quality. I read it nonetheless, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were two voices speaking here – three if we count Lynette. My advice: read the first part and love it and love Millie for all she represents for women in our age and then stop and read something else.

Make Me, Lee Child

Make-Me-pbNothing is better than a cold and rainy day, a cup of hot tea and a Jack Reacher tale. There is something about Lee Child’s protagonist that is so incredibly appealing – The Washington Post calls him “the stuff of myth…. One of this century’s most original, tantalising pop-fiction heroes” and I couldn’t agree more. Jack Reacher represents the great unknown. He is a wanderer, a nomad, travelling with only the clothes on his back from town to town, stopping wherever he feels the need. He is astute, curious, a keen observer and endearingly fearless. But I think that what makes Reachers such a fascinating character is the deep sense of aloneness that travels with him. He really is a solitary figure and even when he connects with other characters, he still maintains this aura of isolation.

Like all of Lee Child’s thrillers, this one is fast paced, racing through the action, filled with twists and unexplained clues. It’s 262 pages are weightless, making this the perfect book for a long flight or a summer holiday.

For those of you, like me, who are Lee Child fans, this book won’t disappoint!

 

The Seven Good Years, Etgar Keret

imagesI’m not generally a fan of satirical writing. It’s a personal thing. I don’t mind a short piece of satire, but for some reason, a long novel or even a short story just doesn’t do it for me. And it’s not because I haven’t tried. I have. Truly. And not just in English but in Hebrew, too. Neither seems to stick and I could never wrap my head around the attraction of this genre. So now you’re asking, well if you don’t like satire, what’s with this review of Etgar Keret’s memoir The Seven Good Years?

Well, the honest truth is that I had the privilege of attending an event hosted by the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival where Etgar Keret read from his memoir, touching on some of the nuances which informed its writing and elucidating the textures of his relationship with his father. There was something magical about hearing Keret read his own work, something real and tangible and true. His reading made me revisit the books that I have of his in Hebrew and they seemed more palatable when I could hear his voice echoing in my head. I loved hearing Keret describe the absurdity of his wife going in to labour against the backdrop of a terrorist attack. The vignette is filled with such palpable wisdom and simultaneously opens a field of sorrow and it’s this attempt to reconcile the two states which is simply a true reflection of living in Israel.

Six hours later, a midget with a cable hanging from his belly-button comes popping out of my wife’s vagina and immediately starts to cry. I try to calm him down, to convince him that there’s nothing to worry about. that by the time he grows up, everything here in the Middle East will be settled: peace will come, there won’t be any more terrorist attacks – and even if once in a blue moon there is one, there will always be someone original, someone with a little vision, around to describe it perfectly. He quiets down and considers his next move. He’s supposed to be naive – seeing how he’s a newborn – be even he doesn’t buy it, and after a second’s hestitation and a small hiccup, he goes back to crying.

While the whole book didn’t sing to me in this fashion, there were enough moments to make it a memorable and worthwhile read. Moments which touched my soul – like his story about the Accident where he juxtaposes a taxi drivers obsession with a scratch to his cab with his emotional distress at his wife’s miscarriage and his father’s cancer.

Alone in the cab, I can feel the tears rising. I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I want to be positive, like my dad. My wife is fine now and we already have a wonderful son. My dad survived the Holocaust and has reached the age of eighty-three. That’s not just a half-full glass; it’s an overflowing one. I don’t want to cry. Not in this taxi.

There is something very raw in the simplicity of Keret’s narrative and this trembling honesty appears specifically when he speaks about his family, and at times when he engages in a discussion about Israel.

And no, it’s not that we Israelis long for war or death or grief, but we do long for those ‘old days’the taxi driver talked about. We long for a real war to take the place of all those exhausting years of intifada, when there was no black or white, only grey; when we were confronted not by armed forces but only by resolute young people wearing explosive belts; years when the aura of bravery ceased to exist, replaced by long lines of people waiting at our checkpoints, women about to give birth, and elderly people struggling to endure the stifling heat…. we’re no better than anyone else at resolving moral ambiguities. but we always did know how to win a war.

There have been many reviews of this memoir – the New York Times‘ Adam Wilson posits some interesting notions, specifically about what defines a ‘good year’, and The Guardian calls Keret “a master: bracing, compassionate, so absolutely himself”. Perhaps the essence of the magic of Keret’s writing is that he focuses so intently on life – “so it goes on. Life is lived, in spite of what is happening – and sometimes because of it.”

Am I a convert to satire as a genre? I don’t think so. But I do certainly appreciate the magic of Keret’s writing and his enormous contribution to the political commentary so closely associated with Israel and life there.

The Trap, Melanie Raabe

9781925240870Sue Turnbull at The Sydney Morning Herald classifies The Trap as a work of ‘domestic noir’ fiction along with the likes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train. Turnbull’s review describes Raabe’s book as classic ‘domestic noir’ complete with the “seemingly interminable self-doubt and self-delusion that characterise the central character’s path to enlightenment” and the twist that inevitably occurs at some point in the narrative.

There is no doubt that Raabe’s debut novel is both psychological thriller and specifically, ‘domestic noir’. It contains all of the elements of a book that would usually grab my attention and keep my gripped until the bitter end. It certainly jumped off the shelf and into my arms when I spied it in the Hot Reads section of the Public Library!

Some of the things that impressed me in this novel:

Raabe’s descriptive powers. Raabe has a wonderful ability to use detail and description in a subtle and artistic way. I found that this skill enhanced that narrative and the character development and gave me a clear insight into some of the book’s thematic concerns.

It is autumn, and as I stand here gazing out, I have the feeling I’m looking in a mirror. The colours are building to a crescendo; the autumn wind makes the trees sway, bending some branches and breaking others. It is a dramatic and beautiful day…

She hasn’t belaboured the image here, the description is simple and concise, yet packed with power – the personification of the colours, as though they have the power to build and create sound is magnificent and enables readers to really experience the scene. And this is just one example of many evocative uses of sensory imagery and intense description.

The concept. I thought the concept for this plot was intriguing. One sister finds the other murdered in her apartment and is convinced she sees the killer. So begins her spiral down into a psychological disorder which prevents her from leaving her home and leaves her a recluse:

The villa is my world. The sitting room with its open fire is my Asia, the library my Europe, the kitchen my Africa. North America is in my study. My bedroom is South America, and Australia and Oceania are out on the terrace. A few steps away, but completely unreachable.

I haven’t left the house for eleven years.

Raabe’s ability to reveal insights into the protagonist’s world is astounding. “It’s not a wide world, my world, but it’s safe. At least, that’s what I thought.”

Narrative structure. Conceptually, I thought the narrative structure was perfect for fleshing out the plot and illustrating for readers how Linda, the protagonist, was trying to unpack her theories about her sister’s death while dealing with the residual psychological trauma of the experience of her loss. Raabe cleverly constructs the foreground narrative of Linda’s present, ‘real’ life which unfolds in her house and revolves around her seeing a photograph of the man she believes killed her sister. The secondary narrative is presented in the form of Linda’s latest book called ‘Blood Sisters’ which she writes as a ploy to illicit a confession from her sister’s killer.

I loved the idea of this structure but in practise it didn’t always work for me and at times in the telling I found myself distracted by the switch of narrative voice and wanting the narrative to ‘hurry up’, so to speak.

Psychological angle. I think it was this that held most potential for me in Raabe’s novel: Linda’s psychological torment, the nature of her illness, the battle she faces to uncover the truth, her self doubt. It is clear from reading Raabe’s book that she attempts to overtly engage with each of these elements and at times she does so brilliantly, but there were moments in my reading where I found Linda’s rising self doubt unconvincing and this made me question the narrative structure and the power of Linda’s voice in this telling.

Nonetheless, my overall experience of Raabe’s book is that it was enjoyable. If you are a reader who likes a bit of a psychological thrill in the domestic noir genre, then this is definitely a book for you!

 

 

Born Survivors, Wendy Holden

They say a picture tells a thousand words. So here’s a picture:

mauthausen_babies-v2

And here are some words… Meet Eva, Mark and Hana. Three people who share a remarkable story. They were all born in the darkest hours of history, destined for death, toward the end of World War II.  They are now “siblings of the heart”, bound forever by the miracle of their survival.

Eva Clarke’s mother, Anka was from Czechoslovakia. She survived three years in the Terezin ghetto outside of Prague and was then transported, while pregnant with Eva, to Birkenau. She stood before Mengele, denying her pregnancy and trying to hide her naked body with her bare hands. In another life she had been a law student, “strikingly beautiful and fluent in German, French and English with a smattering of Spanish, Italian and Russian”, she had loved classical music and the cinema. She had been an avid reader, a talented swimmer and “as happy as a lark”. Anka was ultimately sent to work in an armaments factory near Dresden and from there to Mauthausen concentration camp by train. She went into labour on the cart on the way to the camp and delivered baby Eva weighing 1.5kg. Following the war, Anka married and with her new husband raised Eva. She died in 2013.

Mark Olsky was born in an opal coal wagon that was transporting Jews to Mauthausen. His mother, Rachel, was from Poland and was the eldest of nine children. In 1937 Rachel married Monik Friedman, a wealthy factory owner. Rachel was involved in charity work and fundraising and when the ghetto was established she worked to organise relief for those less fortunate than herself and Monik. She was one of the last to leave the ghetto in Lodz in 1944 where she lived with her three sisters. She died in February 2003.

48-hana-and-priska-in-1949_credit-hana-berger-moranHana Berger Moran came into the world on April 12, 1945 on a plank on the factory floor in Freiberg, outside of Dresden. In October 1944, Priska, Hana’s mother, similarly stood before Mengele and hid her pregnancy from his “forensic fascination”. She “had no idea if telling the truth might save her or condemn her and her child to an unknown fate. But she knew she was in the presence of danger.” Growing up, Priska “won numerous academic awards” and was “highly regarded”. Priska married Tibor in 1941 and together they moved to an apartment where they lived happily. In the midst of round ups and chaos, Priska miscarried her first child. As life became more difficult, she and Tibor grieved for what they had lost. Priska would miscarry twice more before falling pregnant with Hana, the baby that she would keep and raise alone. Priska died, aged 90, in 2006.

Wendy Holden has assumed a mammoth and burdensome task in compiling this story of three young mothers who survived against all odds. This is not an easy story to tell, but Holden has managed to craft each narrative as an individual strand in a broader story and each is filled with a sensitive tension that makes it unique and powerful. At times I found the narrative structure difficult to follow, but the story itself is so powerful that it didn’t impact my reverie in reading this book.

I commend Wendy Holden and I am in awe of these three women who survived such hardship, of their courage and determination and their sheer will to create lives for their children. I wish we all had this strength.

This is not an easy book to read but you won’t be disappointed and it certainly is an important one.

To make it even more valuable, you can be one of the privileged individuals to hear Eva Clarke speak at an inspirational event to be held by the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival at Waverley Library on April 8th at 2pm. This event has limited seating so tickets are necessary.

The Landing, Susan Johnson

download (1)Gosh I loved this book. It’s subtle and witty and sad and beautiful all at the same time. It is not one of those books that will bowl you over with its brilliance or drown you in wonder. It is simply a lovely telling of the lives that people lead and the relationships they share and it is this that makes it a delight to read.

Johnson’s characters are fraught and wonderful and real. They are each stricken with very believable lives which seem to torment them – Jonathan whose wife Sarah has left him for a woman; Penny whose daughter, Scarlett, ran off with a man old enough to be her father; Marie, Penny’s mother, a crotchety old woman who drives Penny mad. And all of these people come together at The Landing; an idyllic place in Queensland that is pristine and far removed from the pressures of work and life. It’s a space outside of time.

There are many wonderful moments in this book and some delightful allusions – “If a separated man – about to be divorced – is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?” – harking back to Pride and Prejudice. Like Austen, Johnson is preoccupied with the “minutiae of her characters’ lives” and it is this that makes the book so  readable.

I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes

downloadThis book was one of those books that everyone raved about – a must read! A great thriller! Super exciting! The New York Times describes it thus: “the most exciting desert island read of the season”- and I can’t disagree. It certainly runs at quite a pace, rushing through countries and crises, racing over plains of intrigue and deception, bursting across borders and governments. Hayes has managed to cram so much into this tome that it is exhausting to read. But, read it I did and I have to confess that I rather enjoyed it.

There are aspects of this book which are superior – the pace is constant and the characters are diverse enough to be captivating and complex. Nonetheless, what I was left with in the wake of completing I Am Pilgrim was the sense that Hayes had attempted to cover too much ground in this book which starts with a crime scene in New York and then rapidly traverses the globe only to sneakily tie in the original crime scene at a later point in the telling. I found myself thinking that perhaps Hayes was trying too hard and that parts of the narrative could be edited or left out altogether. I Am Pilgrim reads like a crime thriller trying to be something more which is admirable but I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary.

Nonetheless, a great read and I expect it will make a fantastic film!

The Lost Swimmer, Ann Turner

the-lost-swimmer-9781925030860_lgThis was one of those books that doesn’t fit neatly into a specific genre. It was part love story, part thriller, and part vague foray into the wind swept Australia coast. While the characters didn’t grab me, I was definitely captivated by the landscape and the ‘Australian-ness’ of things … this was a solid element of the narrative from the novel’s opening:

“The sand was washed clean today,stretching wide at low tide. I ran along the glistening shore thinking of something I’d read last night: that you could travel a thousand miles and never notice anything. I suspected that this was as false now as when it was written by a Greek philosopher in the 5th century BC. Surely powers of observation would eventually take hold?”

More fascinating was the certain savagery that lay beneath the fine ebb and flow of this narrative. The story of the lost swimmer was one example of this, but more intriguing is the violent incident between the protagonist’s dog, Big Boy, and a resident kangaroo called Bonnie. I found myself captivated by this violence, unsure of its metaphorical significance. It’s worth citing part of this incident just to illustrate the dramatic nature of the exchange.

Without warning, Big Boy came racing through the thickening gloom and went straight for the kangaroos. In one swift movement he snapped the joey between his massive jaws. Instinctively Bonnie whipped back on her tail and struck Big Boy with her powerful hind legs. Big Boy leaped away, not taking the full force, but refusing to let go of the joey, who was emitting a thin, high-pitched squeal. Bonnie attacked again, boxing forward and scratching deeply with needle-sharp front claws. Big Boy buckled, yelping in pain, momentarily releasing the joey. Blood flowed everywhere, a dark gelatinous river emanating from the joey mingling with the brighter blood of the injured dog, who now, ignoring pain and reason, attacked the joey again, plucking him up and running away.”

What ensues is devastating and raw and extremely confronting and I can only think that Turner is trying to create some sort of metaphorical parallel between the personal tragedy about to afflict her protagonist and this incident.

In short, an interesting example of good quality Australian fiction.

Jessie Mei Mei, Sharon Guest & Stuart Neal

download (2)I don’t know much about the world of adoption. I was blessed with children. I never knew the pain of barrenness.

The story of Jessie Mei Mei is an important one. It’s a story that uncovers so much tragedy on so many different levels – the tragedy of these parents who can’t conceive, the tragedy of children abandoned, often because their parents have no choice, the tragedy of a flawed system for parents who bring home children like Jessie Mei Mei.

I am in awe of Sharon Guest and Stuart Neal. Their book so clearly conveys their commitment to their children and to all the children who are so clearly under-represented. I commend them for their tenacity and their ongoing and unyielding love for Jessie Mei Mei, despite their inability to care for her full time. At the same time, there is a resonance of deep sadness that filters through this book and while I am humbled by Guest and Neal, I can’t help feeling a terrible sorrow for this child and all children who suffer her fate.

We have so much to learn about ourselves and others and I am eternally grateful for all the blessings in my life.

Jessie Mei Mei is a story that needed telling and Guest and Neal have told it well.